The Michigan State-Oregon game last year, a back-and-forth affair with a misleading 46-27 final score in the Ducks' favor, serves as an excellent object lesson for providing perspective on Week 1 of the 2015 season as the college football nation begins to turn its attention to the rematch Saturday in East Lansing with ESPN's College GameDay in town.
Oregon's victory in 2014's biggest intersectional game, which turned on some fantastic improvisational prestidigitation from quarterback Marcus Mariota, presaged the Ducks' run to the College Football Playoff final and Mariota winning the Heisman Trophy. The game provided meaning and ramifications that lasted throughout the season.
It also did the opposite, as it certainly didn't send the Spartans' spiraling amid talk of "Not Yet Ready for Prime Time." Michigan State would go on to finish 11-2 and ranked No. 5 after posting a stunning comeback win over Baylor in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. The Spartans' two losses came, of course, to the two national finalists, including Big Ten East rival and eventual national champ Ohio State, so the end-of-season talk transformed to "Pretty Darn Close."
Oh, and the poor ol' Big Ten was perhaps not so poor and ol', as everyone was gleefully typing last September. Recall that those now-revered Buckeyes went down at home to Virginia Tech on the very same day the Spartans fell in Eugene.
So we have the two prime directives as the season transitions from Week 1 to Week 2: 1. Assessing what we learned from the first games; 2: Telling ourselves not to overreact, as there is a lot of football left.
Whoever wins the back end of this fantastic home-and-home series won't automatically gambol into a magical season, see Oregon flopping against Arizona four weeks after beating the Spartans -- at home after a bye week, no less -- and still somehow managing to salvage its season. Still, this game should catapult the winner into the top four, validation for a program brave enough to schedule such a challenging nonconference game. Yes, that catapulting should include a nice high angle view while soaring over Baylor, which opted to cut the selection committee's class on the value of ambitious scheduling.
As for what we learned about Oregon and Michigan State in Week 1, there is a noteworthy symmetry, as both appeared to be eyeballing each other on the horizon, perhaps to distraction, particularly on defense.
Oregon rolled up 731 yards against Eastern Washington, an FCS power, making the debut of quarterback Vernon Adams -- you might have heard he was behind center for Eastern Washington last year -- a successful one. Adams displayed a swashbuckling style both passing and running that suggests he'll fit right in with the Ducks' ludicrous speed offense. That devil-may-care style, however, also contributed to him taking a hard late hit that knocked him out of the game, though Adams afterward gave himself a clean bill of health to reporters.
The Ducks' defense was a less impressive story in the 61-42 victory, particularly the rebuilt secondary that yielded 438 yards passing. You'd think that would have Spartans senior QB Connor Cook, a likely high NFL draft pick this spring, salivating. Yet Cook completed less than 50 percent of his passes -- 15 of 31 -- in the Spartans' own lackluster victory, 37-24 at Western Michigan.
Further, Sparty's Jupiter-sized jaw took a couple of pokes from Western Michigan QB Zach Terrell, who passed for 365 yards and made things interesting into the fourth quarter. With touted former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi now leading Pittsburgh, Michigan State yielded more passing yards than it had in a regular season game in five years.
What happened with both teams in Week 1 suggests that we could see plenty of passing yards and scoring Saturday against vulnerable secondaries. Or maybe both QBs will be out of sorts.
What happened in Week 1 is unlikely to repeat itself in Week 2. This game will feature a lot more scheme, and both teams will be far more focused. There figures to be plenty of plot shifts, not unlike last year, when both teams connect with punches and counterpunches.
While the scoreboard last year said the Ducks won decisively, that's not the entire story. They trailed by nine points in the third quarter and the Spartans seemed to be in control, another physical foe getting the best of Oregon's (cough) "finesse" offense. Then, on a third-and-10, Mariota made like Houdini as he spun away from a furious pass rush and competed a risky ball flip to running back Royce Freeman for a 17-yard gain.
Oregon went on to score the first of four TDs on consecutive drives and won going away. But if Freeman didn't make a coordinated grab of Mariota's flip, the story might have been the poor judgment that lost the game, not the playmaking that won it.
Let there be no question: This is an important game, a rematch that should serve as the first major marker on our trek toward the second College Football Playoff. With all the hype, we might overreact to its result. In December, we might grin over our paroxysms of analysis in the immediate aftermath. But that's part of the fun.